A soft, sweet scent permeates the room. It is barely noticeable. It drifts subtly; it lingers poetically.
The scent contrasts sharply with my recent whirlwind storm of activity. A full-time job, ministry several times a week, a philanthropy project requiring time and energy- all seemed an unlikely time to impulsively fly out of town several states away for a weekend wedding.
The older I get, the more I have come to appreciate the importance of open hands and a willing heart that says, "send me" God.
These words, as well as images and stories in Gregory Boyle's, Tattoos on the heart crept into my soul... they were the melody to the song softy sung last weekend. ... but let's back up.
Johnnie, my step-father- my dad, was the harbormaster for the marina my sister and brother-in-law own on a lake. With a maximum depth of 1645 feet, it is the second deepest lake in the United States and the eleventh deepest in the world. One of the things I remember most about growing up there were the intensity of the storms. The winds brew, the skies percolate, the air is crisp and cool until suddenly, and least expectantly, the weather changes.
I love these skies. Dramatic, vibrant and intense, my spirit gets caught up in them. Writing, I can almost taste the fragrance of the memory. As beautiful as these storms are, they are also dangerous. Caught off guard and ill-prepared, tourists find themselves stranded in the middle of the lake in a boat, panic-stricken and frightened. The S.O.S. call comes in and my dad heads out to rescue them.
I have come to believe that we, as followers of Christ, all clamor to get in the boat. In the church, we spend time separating... separating men from women, separating youth from adults, separating doctrine from opinion. Interestingly, that is not what is happening in the culture. Just venture into a work environment. Men and women working alongside each other in weekly meetings, daily emails, retreats to build community and conversations to broaden the end goal: success for the organization. I step into the church and hear a faint whisper that cries, look God, I stayed safely in the boat with other men, I listened to the voice of youth once a year at Youth Sunday where the music was too loud, I interjected my life application around your doctrine, all in the safe confines of the boat.
Is that an authentic faith? To me, it speaks of fear. We fear the grace that has been handed to us freely. We fear the intimacy of God. In contrast, if we allow God's fragrance to permeate our being, to penetrate the depths of our souls, we are left weeping with outstretched arms, crying God- why use me? I am weak, I want what I want but in the humble appraisal of ourselves, come to the realization through a cried whisper, "but I want you more."
Like the tourist stranded in the middle of the lake, we want to get into the boat where we can feel safe, protected and secure, where the evaluation of ourselves is reflected through the other friends in the boat. I get it. I want to stay there too but the problem is: I'm my father's daughter and I have NO FEAR with him beside me. He has me covered: simple, uncomplicated and true - he loved me. I couldn't stop him from loving me if I tried. Maybe he shouldn't of loved me, I wasn't biologically his. No more could I stop that love than I could stop the storms that brewed on the lake. Love: simple, uncomplicated, true.
So... if we all stay in the boat, who is going to respond to the S.O.S. calls ?
I left home and college and moved nine hours away on a whim. It was a risky move. Making the decision meant I was cutting any financial ties with my parents. Their love and support would remain but not any money. Risky paid off because I never left. Sheer determination won.
At first, I lived with a family of five boys. The eldest son had been killed in an automobile accident his senior year of high school about 18 months prior to my arrival. I was to help with the grieving... helping in the areas I could. Fast forward many years to last weekend- this was the wedding I would attend.
What I didn't know? I was getting "out of the boat" and I was covered... covered in prayer. It took me almost twenty four hours to get to Florida, from California. Luckily, I was armed with a book my daughter sent me just days before and I found myself leaving the Florida airport the same way I arrived - crying softly.
I'm not good with maps. I left my home at 3:45am to get to the airport for a 5:30am departure but because of airport closures and snarled flights didn't arrive into Florida until a little after midnight and because of the late hour, had to rent a car and drive an hour through highways with toll bridges. I set my phone to "google maps" but the network was down and at 1:00am found myself on a desolate road where, in my mind, began imagining anything happening. Fear set in.
Interesting how God speaks in whispers to my heart. Just prior to my getting lost, two very random vintage classic rock songs came on the radio, consecutively. Nothing special about those songs except to me. In those moments, I heard a quiet voice... where God was saying, I have you covered in prayer, my love. A call to my husband to unsnarl my exiting the wrong toll bridge and a 2:00am call from my eighty year old friend, with desperation in her voice, all got me back on track. Also interesting, it was precisely the long hours, mis-routed flights and late arrival that changed my course. I was suppose to stay in a hotel room with two random women, but instead, because of the late hour, was asked to drive directly to the groom's home where I spent time with a little girl named Giavanna and a small group of older women - my friends.
"And so the voices at the margins get heard and the circle of compassion widens. Souls feeling their worth, refusing to forget that we belong to each other" Gregory Boyle in Tattoos on the Heart.
I thought I was going to a wedding, and I was, but I was also called to "get out of the boat" and be the hands and feet of Jesus, in pajamas, in bed, talking, praying and singing softly to a little girl, five years old. Her "daddy" was getting married. Her "mommy" died when she was two in a vespa accident where after weeks on life support was released into a father's loving embrace. Giavanna has a "hunger", a desire, so deep inside her tiny body to see her mommy that the only place for her to look is... up. And of course, to those around her too.
We read some books and afterwards spoke betimes prayers. She clasped her little hands and began:
"Homies have been "outside" for so long they forget there is an inside. Their sense of isolation is suffocating, and they are quick to throw in the towel". Gregory Boyle, in Tattoos on the Heart.
In his book, Boyle talks about gang members identifying so greatly with the perception people have of them, they forget they are wholly and completely lovable for who they are. That sort of love is hard to grasp; it is a soul reaching, grasping, yearning for the realization that whispers: "there is NOTHING you can do to get me to STOP loving you, period". It is as true as the sun rising or the sun setting. It is LOVE unconditionally.
We had been at the wedding for hours and hours. Giavanna had been up all day and night rolling in dirt, sand and water, running barefoot wild and free in a white flower girl's dress, refusing to be reined in or contained. Home now, she was in the bathtub, I was at the sink washing my face when the following conversation took place:
I knew where she was going... deep in her subconscious, maybe there was something in her that caused her mommy not to be there. Maybe, just maybe, her rascally behavior meant she wasn't lovable. Funny- her rascally, passionate, faithful Italian spirit was everything I loved most about her. Game on.
Tucking her in, she asked me to sing softly the same song I had sung the night before. "could you just sing that one over and over again?"
I did... and I felt the deep exhale of a little girl resting in the arms of people "willing to get out of the boat". I know that deep exhale because, I too, am thankful for people who are "willing to get out of the boat" for me.
You have heard the story of the Lion and the thorn. The Lion goes around roaring; he frightens the other animals. What the animals don't know is there's a thorn stuck in his paw. It hurts. It isn't until a little boy discovers the reason for his loud roar that he takes the time to remove the thorn from the bottom of the lion's paw. Not only does this calm the lion but it begins an unlikely, forever friendship between a boy and a Lion.
Mid-way through the writing of this post, I went to see the Oscar nominated movie, "American Sniper", an adaption from a book by the same name that similar to, "Tattoos on my heart", left me a little raw. I allowed the story to penetrate my shell.
it slowly seeped in. As I watched these big, strong, capable men in their large ominous Hummer vehicles roaming war zones, I thought of the crumbling weight that brings a man down; I thought about storms that collapse shores. There was a scene where a father and son were out deer hunting; i flashed back to the days when I was a little girl walking into my own garage to see a buck, lifeless and cold hanging from a nail and rope intertwined among the rafters. The image constricted my spirit. At the same time, I imagined myself being tough enough to handle the deer hunt because it meant time with my biological father where the relationship was otherwise tense and distant. This frightened me.
Flash forward to another scene: first year of college, volunteering in a county hospital, I remember an old man who the nurses said was a regular there. Homeless and an alcoholic, life had been tough on him and the inability of penetrating his veins for an IV was evidence of that. The nurses voiced their frustration as he unconsciously lay on a gurney surrounded by lights and sounds. I helped with blood pressure, pulse, temperature, containers to catch any bodily fluids and towels to wipe the mess. Like the bells that sound the stroke of midnight at Cinderella's ball, his time was up. A flurry of activity and the guy was coding. I stood back and watched as the doctors and nurses responded, while at the same time, talking about baseball scores. With sideline tickets, I was in the audience for the show. Like the buck hanging from the rafters, he lay there lifeless and cold and the conversation seemed distant and cold too. It frightened me.
In Bradley Cooper's character in American Sniper, he talks about an edge. When his wife asks him to write a letter similar to the one read at the military funeral of one of his comrades, he confidently confides that he has no intention of writing such a letter because he would loose his edge.
His edge: that thing that kept fear at arms length. His edge: that thing that allowed his fellow soldiers to believe they were in better hands with him around. His edge: maybe it was the bible he kept in his pocket or maybe the tough words his father spoke to him as a boy but either way, it kept him in the fight and fear at bay.
The battle is fought in the mind.
I, too have embraced an edge: 1) a belief that I am covered in prayer 2) the real-life example of a father's love and 3) a savior willing to die on a cross.
Jesus called the disciples to get into the boat but he also called them to get out of the boat and walk on water. Peter did just that. It was only for a few steps but he got out of the boat. Was Peter perfect? Hell, no. In fact, he denied even knowing Jesus three times but he was willing to respond in obedience and love to the call on his life to "get out of the boat" and make disciples of men.
The Lion roars. It roars in the voice of a little girl; it roars in the strength of a man. Is there anyone willing to get out of the boat in order to take the thorns out?
My thorn? What if, like Giavanna, I'm too rascally to be loved - forever? What if I am no longer covered in prayer? What if I am more like my biological father than I care to admit? What if I'm not strong enough for the battle? ... fear drifts in like a faint fragrance. I'm frightened. I'm frightened by redemption. I'm frightened by intimacy. I'm frightened by love.
and then Jesus reminds me of a childlike faith ... the one where I hear the powerful, humble prayers of a little girl and my response of softly singing to her until her exhale was slow and deep and her sleep, warm and peaceful. She snuggled in closer. It was the comfort of someone covered in prayer through love.
I board the plane at roughly the same time as I began only days before, 5:30 am pick up the book I started and allowed the words, images and songs to penetrate my tough exterior and sat quietly crying; tears fell arriving at the airport in Florida and tears fell leaving the airport in Florida. They were not sad tears but ones emanating from the frailty of our humanity.
If the church is built on a platform of inclusion rather than exclusion, then lives will be saved. Yesterday I set among a group of young men and women in high school and college who prayed the prayers of faith and love and I was inspired by the church. I am so dang eager to boast on the things I have done rather than the things God has done. I arrive at the San Francisco airport on-time but will again have delayed flights for four more hours. It gives me time to reflect on the many emotions brewing inside me. Humble and tired, I listen to music and then, un-expectantly, see the most beautiful double rainbow I have ever seen over the entire width of the airport. Intertwined, It's colors vibrant and deep. Crowds gather around.
The day of the wedding, I asked Giavanna to draw with me. She wanted both of us to draw rainbows because they make her think of her mommy. The image in the airport that morning did not escape me; I would like to think a mother's love shone down in the form of a rainbow.... just as brilliantly as a little girl's prayers reached up to the heavens and I had sideline tickets for the show.
The fragrance of God is subtle and sweet and speaks loudly of love and good things. With a humble appreciation of who I am... I extend my hands upward to heaven and outward to people, thereby drawing an image of a cross and I say ... thank you. Thank you for getting out of the boat.
A person who searches for depth and beauty in the simple things.